Cow and calf in field

Animal Welfare Assessment Framework

The FOUR PAWS perspective on guiding animal welfare assessments


Animal welfare is an individual and subjective mental state1. It is the sum of all mental experiences of an individual at a given time. This mental state is influenced by the interplay between the functional domains of an animal's life, namely: the quality of its nutrition, the physical environment it lives in, its health status, and its behavioural interactions within its physical and social context. All of these factors may fluctuate in time, leading to changes in overall welfare within a range from good to bad. Regular monitoring is therefore essential for welfare to be managed well. The goal is to achieve a positive quality of life overall, i.e., a favourable balance, by keeping negative experiences as mild and as few as possible and to enable animals to also have positive experiences.

FOUR PAWS is committed to shaping its work according to latest scientific evidence. To that end, FOUR PAWS recommends the use of ‘The Five Domains Model’, created by Prof. Emeritus D.J. Mellor and further adapted by FOUR PAWS as a tool for guiding animal welfare assessments.

Since the 1990s, science has greatly improved our knowledge of animal welfare. We now know much more about the unpleasant and pleasant mental experiences animals can have and how they affect their welfare. This knowledge has led to the development of new tools that allow a thorough assessment of animal welfare. Such assessments are a regular part of welfare management and are aimed at improving the practical care of animals.

Guided by the well-known ‘Five Freedoms’2, the early welfare focus was on preventing animals from having negative experiences. However, we now also know that animals are able to have positive experiences (e.g. pleasurable tastes whilst eating, physical comfort, enjoyable companionship, excited playfulness), which enhance their quality of life.

The Five Freedoms concept is nowadays an inadequate tool for assessing animal welfare due to some key points. Firstly, the Five Freedoms concept does not refer specifically to positive experiences. Secondly, it disregards the role some negative experiences have in keeping animals alive. Thirdly, it refers to only a small proportion of the mental experiences animals can have. An alternative to the Five Freedoms is therefore needed.

The Five Domains Model1,3 is a modern tool for guiding systematic and thorough assessments of animal welfare states. The Model incorporates the understanding that mental experiences, be they negative or positive, are a reflection of an animal’s internal states (e.g. hunger leading to feed intake; vitality stimulating play behaviour) or external circumstances (e.g. threat from attack leading to fear; presence of conspecifics leading to pleasures of being bonded). The Model therefore focusses on identifying the internal and external conditions that give rise to mental experiences. The sum of all mental experiences represents the welfare status of an animal at a given time.

Our aim, therefore, is to keep negative experiences as mild and as few as possible and to enable animals to also have positive experiences, with the goal of achieving an overall positive quality of life balance.

Below is a table, adapted from Mellor 20164 and Mellor et al. 20205, detailing five General Welfare Aims, supported in each case by several Focusing Welfare Targets. The listed Provisions are directed at securing the corresponding Aims and Targets. On the one hand, these welfare aims and targets seek to practically minimise the occurrence of negative internal states and external situations, and the negative experiences associated with them. On the other hand, a strong emphasis is placed on promoting positive experiences.

General Welfare AimsFocusing Welfare TargetsProvisions
Good NutritionTo minimise thirst and hunger and enable eating to be a pleasurable experience.By providing ready access to fresh water and a species-appropriate diet to maintain full health and vigour[a].
Good Physical EnvironmentTo minimise discomfort and exposure to adverse environmental conditions and to promote physical comfort.By providing appropriate outdoor access and suitable shelter against adverse weather conditions[b], and/or housing with different functional areas[c], comfortable resting areas, and good air quality.
Good HealthTo minimise pain[d], disease, and other discomforts and to promote the pleasures of vigour, strength, robustness and harmonious physical activity.By preventing or rapidly diagnosing and treating diseases and injuries, and by stimulating, among others, proper muscle tone, natural body posture, cardiorespiratory function, and digestive system processes.
Appropriate Behavioural InteractionsTo minimise threats and unpleasant restrictions on behaviour and movement, and to promote engagement in rewarding activities.By providing sufficient space, conspecific company[e], human interactions that are adapted to the individual needs and appropriately varied conditions[f] to allow for species-specific behavioural expression
Positive mental experiencesTo promote the experience of various forms of comfort, pleasure, interest, confidence and a sense of control.By providing safe and species-appropriate environmental, conspecific and human interactive opportunities to have pleasurable experiences.

The General Welfare Aims are a practical translation of the Five Domains of the Model, namely: 1) ‘Nutrition’, 2) ‘Physical Environment’, 3) ‘Health’, 4) ‘Behavioural Interactions’ and 5) ‘Mental State’. Affects resulting from the first three functional domains lead to animals performing behaviours aimed at restoring internal stability and are referred to as ‘survival-critical affects’. The fourth domain is concerned with the conscious actions animals perform in pursuit of specific goals in relation to the environment, other animals and humans5, generating ‘situation-related affects’. The totality of generated affects from the first four domains – assigned to the fifth domain – represent the animal’s subjective experience of wellbeing.

In order to comprehensively assess the welfare state of an animal under human care, it is important to evaluate the impact of human presence and behaviour on the animal. Handling, training, medical treatments, and caring for an animal are situations where the interaction between humans and animals can lead to either negative or positive mental experiences. The valence of these experiences, i.e. their positive or negative outcomes, will vary depending on, for example: prior contact with humans, preexistence of threatening circumstances, intended or unintended harm, level of bonding with specific humans, provision or denial of access to resources, and participation in common activities of either a pleasant or unpleasant nature.

The figure below is a schematic representation of the Five Domains Model in its 2020 updated version5 illustrating that the welfare state of an animal is the subjective mental state (fifth domain), a sum of affects generated by the four functional domains that influence an animal’s quality of life.

The Five Domains Schematic


1. Mellor DJ. Updating Animal Welfare Thinking: Moving beyond the “Five Freedoms” towards “A Life Worth Living.” Animals. 2016;6(10). doi:10.3390/ani6100059
2. Farm Animal Welfare Council. Second report on priorities for research and development in farm animal welfare. FAWC, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Tolworth (Now DEFRA, London). 1993.
3. Mellor DJ. Operational details of the five domains model and its key applications to the assessment and management of animal welfare. Animals. 2017;7(8). doi:10.3390/ani7080060
4. Mellor DJ. Moving beyond the “Five freedoms” by Updating the “Five Provisions” and Introducing Aligned “Animal Welfare Aims.” Animals. 2016;6(10). doi:10.3390/ani6100059
5. Mellor DJ, Beausoleil NJ, Littlewood KE, McLean AN, McGreevy PD, Jones B, Wilkins C. The 2020 Five Domains Model: Including Human–Animal Interactions in Assessments of Animal Welfare. Animals. 2020;10(10):1870. doi:10.3390/ani10101870

a) E.g. cattle, sheep and goats having access to pasture where fibre-rich feed is available, offering a variety of textures, tastes and smells.
b) And/or because housing is not necessary, e.g. if, at pasture, appropriate natural/artificial shelter is provided. Care must be taken to ensure the management applied is directed towards the corresponding welfare aim.
c) Care should be taken to provide species-appropriate functional areas. Some animal species (e.g. waterfowl, buffalo), in addition to drinking, need access to water for other purposes.
d) E.g. as a result of mutilations.
e) E.g. enabling shared pleasurable activities such as grooming and playing.
f) E.g. enrichment.

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